MAY 4-JUNE 2, 1864.--Operations on the south side of the James River, Va.
Report of Capt. Lemuel B. Norton, U. S. Army, Chief Signal Officer, Department of Virginia and North Carolina, including operations
HDQRS. DEPT. VIRGINIA AND NORTH CAROLINA,
OFFICE OF THE CHIEF SIGNAL OFFICER,
September 2, 1864.
MAJOR: I have the honor to submit the following report of the operations of the signal detachment in this department from the 19th of April to the 31st of August, 1864, including the late active campaign on the James River:
On the 19th of April, in obedience to Special Orders, No. 143, paragraph 51, War Department, Adjutant-General's Office, current series, I assumed command of this detachment as chief signal officer of the department. Upon reporting to the chief of staff I was informed that active operations would soon be commenced, and directed to at once prepare my corps for important service. On reviewing the work then being performed by the detachment I discovered that eight signal stations were in operation in the District of North Carolina and six in the District of Virginia. Those of the former gave to general commanding our forces at New Berne communication with all parts of his picket-line and with three forts defending the town. Whenever the enemy threatened or attacked our lines in the vicinity of New Berne the signal communication established was found to be of the utmost importance, enabling the commanding officer to speedily concentrate his forces at the point of attack, and thus rendering the line defensible by a less number of men than it would otherwise have required. Four of the stations in the District of Virginia constituted a line of signals which connected the left and center of our intrenchments south and west of Portsmouth with the headquarters of Brigadier-General Heckman, who commanded that position. In case of an assault the signal communication thus obtained should have materially assisted in the defense. There was also a station at Yorktown and one at Gloucester Point communicating with each other, and by means of which during an attack upon either place the fire of the batteries located at the other could have been directed against the enemy. The same two stations were extensively employed each day in the transmission of official dispatches, particularly after the concentration of the Eighteenth Army Corps at Yorktown and the Tenth at Gloucester Point. In order that the detachment might be rendered in the highest degree serviceable during the anticipated active campaign, more officers, signal stores, horses, and equipments, transportation, clothing, camp and garrison equipage, and quartermaster's stores were needed and at once. Six officers (second lieutenants) were procured from regiments by the assistance of Circular Orders of April 21, 1864, headquarters Department of Virginia and North Carolina, and placed under instruction in signal duty. Two signal officers, who had been on detached service, were directed to report to me (one by the commanding general and the other by the War Department), and 9 signal officers, who had arrived within the limits of this department with the Tenth Army Corps, were placed under my command. The signal supplies were promptly forwarded from the Bureau of Signal Corps at Washington upon my telegraphic requisitions. The horses, equipments, transportation, &c., were furnished in good time by the different staff departments, and at the commencement of the campaign this detachment was almost thoroughly equipped, and with fair prospects of successfully accomplishing any legitimate work that should be required of it. In view of a contemplated movement by land and water the following assignments were made: Capt. G. S. Dana, with a party of 8 signal officers, to the Tenth Army Corps, and 2 of his most intelligent sergeants (who had been instructed in signals) were supplied with equipments and designed to act in the capacity of officers should their services be thus needed. First Lieut. T. F. Patterson, with a party of 4 signal officers and 3 sergeants, similarly equipped, to the Eighteenth Army Corps. First Lieut. H. W. Benson, to duty with Acting Rear-Admiral S. P. Lee on board the Malvern, flag-ship of the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Second Lieut. P. Carpenter (who was relieved from duty in the District of North Carolina), to the flag-ship of the army gun-boat flotilla, commanded by Brig. Gen. Charles K. Graham. A signal depot of supplies was left at Camp Hamilton, near Fort Monroe, under the charge of an officer of the last detail who was not sufficiently instructed to be able to take the field.
On the 4th of May I was informed that the Tenth and Eighteenth Army Corps were ordered to embark upon transports, which, in the evening, were to assemble in Hampton Roads preparatory to starting early on the following morning on an expedition up the James River. In anticipation of this movement, some of the signal officers and sergeants previously assigned to corps were soon after distributed to the divisions and brigades of those corps. Division and nearly every corps commander had with him upon the steamer occupied as his headquarters the means of communicating by signals with his commanding officers as they moved up the river. On account of the scarcity of signal officers in the department, but 1 could be spared (even at this important juncture) to the navy, and he, therefore, remained upon the flag-ship. In the evening of May 4 I was directed by the commanding general to embark with himself and staff on board the steamer Greyhound, and I obeyed the order at 10 p.m., taking with me as assistants the acting quartermaster and acting adjutant of the detachment.
The trip up the river commenced at an early hour on the 5th, and signals were frequently brought into requisition by the commanding general and his subordinate commanders in the transmission of orders and the making of inquiries. The first landing was made by Wild's brigade at Wilson's Wharf, on the north side of the James, and the signal officer with that command immediately established a station on shore and communicated with the different transports as they passed that point. The next place occupied was Fort Powhatan, on the south side of the river, 7 miles above Wilson's Wharf, and here [left] Stafford's brigade, with the signal party, which latter at once prepared to communicate with the passing steamers and with Wilson's Wharf. We then pushed on to City Point, and there a landing was effected by General Hinks with Duncan's brigade, of his division. A rebel signal party was found at this place transmitting to Petersburg, even while our troops were disembarking, the intelligence of our arrival. The sergeant in charge, his 4 flag-men, his flags, torches, and glasses were all captured, and General Hinks' signal officer immediately occupied the enemy's station, and from there opened communication with general headquarters on board the Greyhound and with other boats as they came in view. After the capture of City Point we then ascended the river about a mile to Bermuda Hundred, which was occupied by the Tenth and the remainder of the Eighteenth Corps. During the evening of the 5th general headquarters remained on the Greyhound, and signal communication was had with the troops on shore, with City Point, and the different headquarters still on boats in the harbor.
Early on the morning of May 6 an officer was sent to occupy an old rebel signal station at Bermuda, and communication opened at once from it to General Hinks' headquarters at City Point. The advance of the forces under Maj. Gen. W. F. Smith having reached Port Walthall, his signal officer occupied a rebel station at Cobb's Hill, which was abandoned on our approach, and from it obtained communication with City Point, and through the latter with general headquarters on board the Greyhound. On the same day the signal officer at Wilson's Wharf accompanied a detachment of the First U.S. Colored Troops, which captured the rebel signal station party and equipments at Sandy Point, on the James River. The enemy's signalist made an armed defense, and the sergeant in charge and 3 of his men were killed before the surrender took place. The record of all the dispatches and reports sent and received through that rebel station was captured and forwarded to the commanding general. It was noticed that while our fleet was ascending the river on the 5th of May the enemy's stations on both sides were actively engaged in reporting our movements until the very moment of the capture of the City Point station, when their line to Petersburg was severed. The Sandy Point station alluded to above was one of those thus cut off from the terminus, and it would never have been captured had not the sergeant in charge placed a too literal construction upon his orders, which were to remain at his post until "driven off by the Yankees." Signal communication was kept up during the 6th between the flag-ship of Admiral Lee and general headquarters. On the 7th an officer was sent to Turkey Bend to open a temporary intermediate station between the flag-ship Malvern, which had moved up the James to Curi's Neck and general headquarters in the Greyhound. Through this line Admiral Lee transmitted his official report (to the Navy Department and to the general commanding) of the loss of the gun-boats Shawsheen and Commodore Jones, the former having been destroyed by a rebel battery, and the latter by a rebel torpedo. On the same day, the Tenth Army Corps having taken a position with its right resting on the James River opposite Farrar's Island, a station of observation was established at the Curtis house, near that point, and an officer placed there to watch the rebel signal stations on the north bank of the river and the Drewry's and Ball's Bluffs batteries. His observations were reported to Major-General Gillmore. On May 8, the army gun-boats having gone up the Appomattox River to protect the left of our army, communication was opened between the flag-ship of General Graham and the Cobb's Hill station, near General Smith's and General Butler's headquarters, which latter was moved into camp during the afternoon of this day. On the 9th a reconnaissance in force toward Petersburg was made by Hinks' division from City Point and communication by signals was kept up between the land forces and the army gun-boats assisting them. On the same day the rest of our army moved out to destroy the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad, and on reaching the turnpike flag signals were operated between the various portions of the Tenth Corps engaged destroying the railroad and the headquarters of Major-General Gilmore. On the 10th the troops of the above mentioned expedition returned to camp, and during the return march signal communication was had by Brig. Gen. John W. Turner, commanding the rear guard, with his rear skirmish line. On the 11th flag signals were established along the line of intrenchments from General Ames' headquarters, near Battery No. 3, to General Terry's headquarters at the Curtis house, and through it with Admiral Lee, whose iron-clads were protecting the right of our line on the James River opposite Farrar's Island. On the 12th Colonel Duncan with his brigade, of Hinks' division, proceeded to occupy and fortify Spring Hill on the south bank of the Appomattox opposite Point of Rocks, and communication by signals was opened for him with his division commander at City Point, and through the Cobb's Hill station with Major-General Smith, commanding the corps. On this day another general advance was made to get possession of the Petersburg and Richmond Railroad and turnpike. Notwithstanding the thickly wooded nature of the country, the signal detachment was usefully employed during this march. On the 13th signal communication was maintained throughout the day and night between the headquarters of the general commanding at Cheatham's house, near Kingsland Creek, and those of General Smith, near the Half-Way House, on the turnpike. On the 14th a station was placed at the Half-Way House (then occupied as the temporary headquarters of the general commanding), communicating with one at our advanced line on the turnpike, and with an officer placed on the right of our line near' the James River, to observe the movements of the enemy. On the 15th communication by flag was had between General Smith's headquarters at Friend's house (which was also General Butler's during the day) and General Gillmore, commanding the left.
Early on the morning of the 16th, during a very dense fog, our forces were attacked and driven back a short distance. Shortly after the fog lifted communication was opened between the headquarters of the commanding general at Cheatham's house and a station of observation at the Half-Way House, near which General Smith occupied a position on the field. Afterward our troops in the center were forced back and General Gillmore's command ordered to withdraw from the left and form in rear of the center. Signals were brought into requisition during this change between General Gillmore's position near the turnpike and his troops while they were leaving their old line west of the railroad. Late in afternoon of same day our whole army returned to its intrenchments and the signal stations previously occupied therein were reopened.
During the assault of the enemy upon our intrenchments on the 20th stations were placed at Battery 6 and Battery 1, both communicating with Battery 3, the former also with the Cobb's Hill station and Battery No. l, also with the Curtis house, on James River, thus giving a line of signals around the intrenchments from general headquarters, near Cobb's Hill, to the flag-ship Malvern, on the James, and between the different batteries, enabling them to direct the fire of each other upon any particular object.
On the 20th also about 3,000 of the enemy's cavalry, under Fitzhugh Lee, attacked Wild's brigade at Wilson's Wharf, and during the fight, which lasted from 2 till 6 p.m., the signal officer at that post directed the fire of the gun-boats upon the enemy and kept up constant communication with Fort Powhatan, 7 miles distant, and where was located the nearest force that could afford assistance, if necessary. For these services then rendered the signal officer and his party received the thanks of the general commanding the post. On the 25th a code for rocket alarm signals was devised by Major-General Smith and his signal officer, and rockets furnished by this department to be used along our picket line in case the enemy should make any demonstration at night. The same code and system was adopted by General Gillmore on the 26th for the right of the line, and his pickets were also furnished with rockets. On the 27th, by consent of the chief of staff, 3 signal officers were relieved from the Tenth Army Corps and assigned to duty with the mobile column of Major-General Smith, who had at that time but 1 signal officer in his new command of 20,000 men, and who requested that he be furnished with 3 more. On the 30th I accompanied the general commanding to a point on the Appomattox, opposite Port Walthall, and enabled him by means of signals to direct the fire of Spring Hill Fort upon the railroad at Walthall Junction. On the 31st about 700 of the enemy attacked Duncan's brigade, posted at Spring Hill, on the south bank of the Appomattox, and the signal communication previously established between the two sides of the river was maintained and called into constant requisition throughout the fight. During this short engagement the commanding general occupied a position at Point of Rocks, and a station was there opened communicating across the river with the officer commanding at Spring Hill and with the commander of the gun-boats in the stream. The attack was repulsed in a few hours and the enemy retired.
In the District of North Carolina the same signal stations were operated during the month of May that were found there when I assumed command, and nothing beyond the usual routine of signal duty transpired until the 26th, when the station built across the railroad track at Batchelder's Creek was destroyed by the accidental explosion of some torpedoes, which it is supposed were being carelessly handled from the cars beneath the signal station. By that accident 2 flagmen were killed and 1 wounded.
During the month of June the following changes were made in the signal stations already established, and the following new ones opened and operated: The station at Bermuda Hundred, which for over a month afforded the only rapid means of communication had between that place and City Point, was discontinued on the 13th because of a telegraph line having been extended between the two points mentioned. Considerable official business between the quartermaster's department and General Hinks' command, and between the commanding general and General Hinks, was, during the existence of the Bermuda station, transacted over its signal line. The stations previously established at Battery No. I and the Curtis house were removed on June 11, the former to General Terry's new headquarters, which he had changed from Curtis' house to a camp in the woods, 1 mile to the rear of Battery 6, and the latter to a tower, 50 feet high, at the water battery, which was built for purposes of observation and to facilitate communication with the gun-boats in the James. It was from this latter station that the enemy's movements across the James were discovered and reported, and some of their important signal dispatches intercepted.(*)
I have the honor to be, major, very respectfully, your obedient servant,
L. B. NORTON,
Capt. and Chief Signal Officer, Dept. of Va. and N. G.
Maj. R. S. DAVIS,
Asst. Adjt. Gen., Dept. of Va. and N. C.